The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal’s noises against the death sentence to the Khalistani have evoked derision as the party did everything to defend and promote a police officer against whom he had moved the Supreme Court

Nothing exemplifies the politics being played out in Punjab over Devinderpal Singh Bhullar better than the spectacle of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) batting for two opposite sides.

Bhullar, the former Khalistan Liberation Force terrorist, whose death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court last week, is to be hanged for his role in the 1993 bomb attack on Maninderjit Singh Bitta. The then Youth Congress president survived the attack in which nine people were killed.

But among the many other crimes that Bhullar has been accused of is the August 1991 bomb attack on Sumedh Singh Saini, now Punjab’s Director General of Police. He was acquitted in the 1991 blast case, but the story of these two arch enemies is part of the annals of terrorism in Punjab. Many believe that it is one reason why Bhullar turned hard-core and planned subsequent attacks.

In the aftermath of the attack on him, when Mr. Saini was Chandigarh’s superintendent of police, Bhullar’s father, maternal uncle and two cousins were picked up by the police. The first two never returned home and are believed to have been killed; two cousins returned after severe torture, and one’s leg had to be amputated. Bhullar was later acquitted in that case, but a Central Bureau of Investigation enquiry was ordered against Mr. Saini in connection with the missing father and uncle. That enquiry was quashed by the Supreme Court in 2011, after the Parkash Singh Badal government filed an affidavit that said, “Such hard-core and experienced criminals who have well organized international support base are likely to misuse such orders to attempt victimization of dedicated police officers which is a matter of concern to the petitioner (State of Punjab).” Mr. Saini is a highly decorated police officer with a formidable anti-terrorism reputation. Last year, the Badal government superseded five police officers to make him the State’s Director General of Police, a move deeply resented by the residual Khalistani elements in India and abroad.

So, when the SAD declared after the Supreme Court rejection of Bhullar’s petition that it would lead the campaign to “save Bhullar,” file a review petition and meet Central leaders, all it has evoked so far is a few smirks, and a sharp riposte from the Opposition Congress. Said Sukhpal Singh Khaira, former legislator and spokesperson of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, “Is a senior politician like Mr. Badal trying to befool the Sikh community and the people of Punjab, or the Supreme Court and the Union Government?” He has urged the Akal Takht Jathedar (supreme Sikh religious head) to seek an explanation from Mr. Badal for denying justice to the missing members of Mr. Bhullar’s family by defending Mr. Saini and accusing Mr. Bhullar in the Supreme Court. The Congress’s reaction is also political because the party’s State unit is itself in a bind over Mr. Bhullar and has preferred not to take a stand.

The SAD’s actions evoke derision also because its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party has strongly supported execution of terrorists. The SAD leaders have taken the plea that Bhullar’s hanging will lead to disharmony in Punjab and give a fillip to the Khalistanis who are trying to revive terrorism.

Reconciliation and alienation

As intelligence agencies assess the impact in Punjab, if Bhullar is hanged, they will also ascertain the strength of the handful of radical outfits which have planned to take a march to Delhi on April 18. Armed with 70 lakh signatures and 8,000 resolutions from panchayats and sports and youth clubs in Punjab, these organisations like the Akali Dal (Panch Pardhani), the Sant Samaj, Damdami Taksal and SAD (Amritsar) are submitting a memorandum to the President seeking clemency for Bhullar. Significantly, the Dal Khalsa, another very vocal outfit, did not send any representative to Ludhiana where these organisations had met to chalk out their programme on Sunday. Sympathy for former terrorists is not widespread but the Sikh diaspora in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. are the moneybags for pro-Khalistani activities. The fear is that each such development gives them an opportunity to sell the idea of alienation to Sikh youth.

In the case of Bhullar, there is an overriding sentiment that his was a fit case for commutation because there has always been doubt over his conviction ever since Justice M.B. Shah dissented with the decision of the two other Supreme Court judges on the bench that upheld his conviction in 2003. Add to that the comparisons between terrorists like Mr. Bhullar and those accused of 1984 anti-Sikh riots like Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Singh who have got away till now. Says Sikh scholar Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon, “These comparisons and the injustice of it all will always remain in the Sikh mind. It does not bother the Centre much because the Sikhs are in a minority and can be trod over. The Akalis too only pay lip service to the Sikh cause now, because they have made a dent into the Hindu vote and are no longer dependent only on the Sikhs for coming to power.”

The question gaining salience in Punjab is this: if reconciliation is the step to prevent Punjab from slipping into chaos once again, will hanging Bhullar serve any purpose?

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